In Homeward Bound, published in The American Prospect, Linda Hirshman makes the argument that, among America’s “elite” women, feminism has, essentially, failed. Her proof — “Half of the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy.”
She sets out to prove that, while the feminist movement altered laws and government and even corporations (which, frankly, is news to me), it really did nothing to redefine the patriarchal notion of family whereby women remain the primary caregivers. Hirshman, a self-described feminist, set out to prove her thesis through interviews with 41 brides featured in the New York Times Sunday Styles section in 1996 (she got this idea from an episode of Sex and the City, of all places) — women who were the very definition of the “elite” for whom feminism had failed.
She offers some seemingly sound data to show that even though these women were being accepted into professional programs and hired at the same rate as their male counterparts, they were leaving the workforce in anticipation of having children. But of course this is not new information.
Where Hirshman begins to shake things up, is in her refusal to attribute this “opt-out” rate to a male-oriented society, to a workplace that is “discriminatory and hostile to family life”, to a systemic problem with work itself. Instead, she seems to blame the women themselves. “Women must take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions,” she writes. She opines, “if half or more of feminism’s heirs (85 percent of the women in my Times sample), are not working seriously [read: full time for high pay], it’s because feminism wasn’t radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn’t change men, and, more importantly, it didn’t fundamentally change how women related to men.”
“Liberal” feminists are also to blame for not being harsher critics of women who continue to take the primary role in childrearing, be it full time or on the “second shift”:
liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women “choices.” The choice talk spilled over from people trying to avoid saying “abortion,” and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars. A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as “feminist” as long as she chose it.
Hirshfield argues that the whole concept of choice, while an easier sell than radical feminism, is wrong. Women cannot choose to take on traditional, underpaid, undervalued domestic work and not undermine feminism: “Like the right to work and the right to vote, the right to have a flourishing life that includes but is not limited to family cannot be addressed with language of choice.”
She lays out three rules needed for women to live by truly feminist principals: “Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.” She then goes on to say, what is in essence, avoid the liberal arts programs, pick the job that pays the best (forget altruism) and stick with it and if you want to marry and have kids, best you “marry down” so you retain the power in the marriage.
Gosh. It’s all so very bleak. The only way for women to be feminist is to be a market-driven, work-oriented and treat marriage as economic decision — the Feminism-as-Gordon-Gekko philosphy, I guess.
The author makes a number of assumptions which are just plain troubling. The first assumption is that brides featured in the style section of the Times are the best candidates for feminist living. I would make the assertion that this is almost patently not the case. If the style section in the Times is anything like those in the Canadian papers, the brides featured are not representative of the average upper-class, educated woman for whom feminism should be most alive. Rather, they are representative of brides who are accutely aware of social status (or whose parents or fiances are — they tend to have the “I’m mortified” faces in the photo). And in my book, people concerned about “fitting into” and “keeping up with” society are not really the drivers of social change.
She also makes this assumption: “The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.” Nowhere does she challenge the notion of success or power. So a woman who chooses to work in not-for-profit or stay at home is less successful, less powerful, than a woman who runs a Fortune 500 company. It is true that in today’s society, her work goes unmeasured. But perhaps instead of pandering to a patriarchal definition of success, we, as feminists, need to redefine it. I just do not understand why only a woman succeeding at a man’s game (by making the money, picking the “right” spouse) is deemed to be a feminist. Can a woman not be feminist by seeking to shatter the patriarchal money-equals-success-equals-power paradigm.
I almost did not want to give the piece any more airtime. But I hate it when one of these articles lands in my inbox without some accompanying challenge. Because as an MBA, ex-Bay Street (Wall Street Lite) now ‘just raisin’ babies’ mom, I see myself in pieces of the article. And I am annoyed that things aren’t better for me and for all women. And for a brief second, I wonder, “my god, is this true? Am I failing the movement? Will my choices in some way negatively affect my daughter (and my son) at some point down the road?”
And in a time when women — mothers — so need to collaborate and cooperate, I hate to see yet another article which seeks to divide. Usually I can dismiss these pieces as conservative propoganda but this wolf was dressed in feminist clothing.
I think that Miriam Peskowitz says it best “She’s trying to find a book contract for this, god help us all. And she’s a scholar too, she should know better about how to use evidence. Enough, enough, enough. We’ve got a whole country out here trying to make ends meet, and this is the crap we get, again and again and again.”
Amen to that.